With all the recent bashing of superdelegates, I thought I might engage in a semi-spirited defense of those much-maligned vote-casters. After all, they didn’t ask to be enswirled in controversy. They exist under party rules set up long before most were in office. In fact, the rules even pre-date the birth of one of them. Still, it’s easy to bash them. After all, no matter your candidate, these uber-voters have the potential to overturn the candidate with the most votes.
But that’s just as it should be. After all, the superdelegates represent the most hallowed traditions of original intent, and harken back to Madisonian fears about mob rule.
Follow be below the fold as I set the Wayback Machine for those heady, fearful days of the 1770s and 1780s. The nascent United States was trying to free itself from the rule of a nation so barbaric as to have asked its subjects to help pay off a war debt through a very slight increase in taxes. That war—which cleared the French, Spanish, and most of the powerful Native American tribes from the Appalachians out to the Mississippi—mostly benefited the people being asked to pay the taxes. But I digress.
Hop in, and let’s go back and see what "Original Intent" Madison would say.
When the various colonies began to break from Mother England they were faced with the not-insignificant task of trying to figure out what kind of governments to install. It’s one thing to break away from a King, it’s quite another to figure out how to rule. Being reactionaries they, well, reacted.
One good way to understand what was going on is to look at what happened in a single state, because the states, not the Confederation Congress, were the chief political arenas of the period. That was where the power was.
And no state more thoroughly revamped its political institutions than did Pennsylvania, whose conservative colonial assembly was in effect overthrown by a revolutionary committee. The new Pennsylvania constitution concentrated all power in the new assembly, even to abolishing the office of governor. It reached out to backcountry settlers, chiefly Scotch/Irish Presbyterians, by dramatically extending representation to the western counties, which had been underrepresented prior to the Revolution; it broadened the suffrage to include all adult white male taxpayers.
That problem was that the states had become too responsive. Each representative looked at how a law would affect his community, rather than at the greater good. Even worse from the point of view of the elites, many of these representatives were commoners. Petty entrepreneurs, shoemakers, weavers, farmers, and even unemployed, made their ways into the statehouses. The result, for devotees of "natural aristocracy" and the disinterested pursuit of the "public good," were horrifying.
The "people," as it turned out, were not particularly inclined to see in "independent" gentlemen their protectors against a potentially tyrannical government; indeed, not only were they disrespectful of their "betters," but they themselves seemed all too inclined to use the government to further their own interests, often at the expense of the wealthy.
The new government of Pennsylvania came to be dominated by the westerners, chiefly small farmers—the sort of people Thomas Jefferson saw as the bedrock of "independence," because they owned their own land and virtuously made their livings with their own labor. Jefferson's self-sufficient farmer, though, was a myth; these were commercial farmers, selling their crops to local, urban, and international markets, borrowing heavily to buy land and equipment, and lusting after consumer goods.
Deeply enmeshed in the market, they were hardly "independent"; they were deeply in debt, and dependent on the marketplace. To these people the Revolutionary era was devastating. Independence deprived them of stable markets and a stable money system, producing horrendous inflation. The years following the Revolution were years of depression, and were particularly hard on western farmers, who found themselves in financial difficulty.
They responded with political action; western politicians united to control the assembly, and used their control to flood the state with paper money. Similar problems arose in other states. Debtors gained power in state after state, using their control to vote themselves payment moratoriums or vast issues of paper money. Sometimes they just had the legislatures pass laws canceling the debts all together.
For people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—the elites at whom the activists directed their anger—this activism struck at the heart of small-r republican ideas themselves. Small-r republicans believed that the great threat to liberty came from government. In fact, they were discovering, the people themselves were as "corrupt" and "corruptible" as any Royal appointee.
Far from revering and voting for "natural leaders" (as Jefferson, et. al., thought they would) the people resented them; far from seeing government as the enemy, they saw it as an instrument with which to protect or extend their own interests, even if it hurt the "rights" of others. Indeed, they seemed happy to infringe on the rights of members of the commercial elite; unlike republicans, the people recognized that private individuals in command of money could be as corrupt and oppressive as any government.
For Madison and his peers, something had to be done. The Articles of Convention, with their weak provisions for centralized power, would have to be scrapped and replaced with something that would allow ordinary people to have power on a local level, but would prevent them from effectively gaining any kind of control at the national level. Madison felt that they would have to design a system that would ensure that if some scenario arose whereby a group of what we would call grassroots activists managed to choose a candidate that represented the "little guy," that person could effectively be neutralized at a national convention.
The solution? The Electoral College--a group of people chosen by "the people," but not bound by the will of the people. That group of august leaders could—by virtue of their independence from accountability—ensure that if the people somehow managed to choose a candidate unacceptable to the establishment, they could vote their conscience.
And from time to time Electors to the College have, in fact, changed their votes. Is it undemocratic that the Electoral College can counteract the will of the people? Sure, but it is important to remember two things. First, the Founders didn’t want democracy, which they equated with mob rule. Second, they weren’t much interested in the "will of the people." The period of the 1770s and early 1780s showed them that the will of the people was dangerous for the survival of the country [from their point of view].
OK, back to the Wayback Machine, fast forward 200 years, to the 1970s and 1980s. This will be much shorter, since we’ve already seen the history of this discussed many times.
Faced with the insurgent candidacies of George McGovern and others beginning in the 1960s, the Democratic Party leadership decided to act by creating a class of delegates called "superdelegates." Essentially a primary-season version of the Electoral College, the job of a super delegate was to provide a method for dealing with left-wing candidates. If one of these radicals somehow managed to get enough votes during primary season, superdelegates could offset their "regular delegates," ensuring that a moderate—and therefore "electable"—Democrat headed the ticket during the general election.
In essence, the superdelegates were a solution to the same problem faced by James Madison and his people, right in time for the U.S. Bicentennial. In terms of original intent, the DNC couldn’t have devised a more Madisonian system. It would allow the people to express their will through the selection of ordinary delegates, but would provide a stopgap against the worst excesses of mob rule in the form of superdelegates.
So, say what you will about the superdelegates. But, they fit in perfectly with how the Founders felt about the popular vote and democratic rule.
My own opinion is that for 220 years since the establishment of the Constitution we have worked to expand the franchise and to undo some of the elitist tendencies in Madison’s structure. We are not the party of original intent. Superdelegates are not the democratic way. After the election we’ll have to fix that.